So we just have to be smart. Apparently.

We are assured that technology will fix our borders (quite often by certain politicians, actually).  All we need are CCTV cameras at the border and no checks will be required according to a a report by Lars Karlsson, President of KGH Border Services, Former Director of World Customs Organization and Deputy Director General of Swedish Customs, so we are told by the DUP.

Indeed, that’s what the Abstract says:

This study, commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the AFCO Committee, provides background on cross-border movement and trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland and identifies international standards and best practices and technologies that can be used to avoid a ‘hard’ border as well as case studies that provide insights into creating a smooth border experience. The technical solution provided is based on innovative approaches with a focus on cooperation, best practices and technology that is independent of any political agreements on the UK’s exit from the EU and offers a template for future UK-EU border relationships.

But is that what the report says?  I tend to recommend reading reports, and this one (pdf) in particular if you wish to use it to support your position.

Even to read a summary (pdf) published on Monday clarifies the position.

The proposal does not remove the need for a border with checks; rather, it is designed to make such a border as frictionless and open as possible. This is to be achieved through the use of technological advances, cooperation agreements and various systems of pre-checks.

The obvious is stated in the main report.  If the UK leaves the Customs Union, border controls are required.

There will be a need of a Customs and Border solution post-Brexit on 29 March 2019 at 23.00, regardless of political solution and Brexit negotiation results. It will have severe consequences if such a Customs and Border solution is not designed, developed and implemented to facilitate the movement of people and trade.


It is possible to implement a Customs and Border solution that meets the requirements of the EU Customs legislation (Union Customs Code) and procedures, with expected post-Brexit volumes of cross-border people and goods, if using a combination of international standards, global best practices and state-of-the-art technology upgraded to a Smart Border 2.0 or similar solution.

All sophistry aside, there is a clear end to the present dispensation where goods may travel freely with neither let nor hindrance.  I’m not considering the question of free movement of people in this piece, because on the evidence of the first 20-odd years of my life, the only real interest in people moving north or south was security and perhaps cheaper dairy produce in holidaymakers’ cars.

The key is in how they expect the border to operate for goods:

A company in Norther Ireland needs to move goods to a client in the UK. The company is pre-registered in the [Authorised Economic Operator] database (AEO status or application for AEO Trusted Trader), a simplified export/import declaration is sent, including a unique consignment reference number. The transporting company is pre-registered in the AEO database and the driver of the truck is pre-registered in the Trusted Commercial Travellers database. The simplified export/import declaration is automatically processed and risk assessed. At the border the mobile phone of the driver is recognized/identified and a release -note is sent to the driver’s mobile phone with a permit to pass the border that opens the gate automatically when the vehicle is identified, potentially by an automatic number plate registration system. A post-import supplementary declaration is submitted in the import country within the given time period. Potential controls can be carried out by mobile inspection units from EU or UK with right of access to facilities and data, as required.

The implication is clear.  A gate which will allow the driver to pass if their company is pre-registered and the driver is pre-registered – if they hold Trusted Trader status.  If they do not hold a permit, then they must be inspected.

Options to avoid infrastructure on the border (although how they expect inspections of unnotified shipments to be made without them is not answered) include release of goods before clearance, monetary guarantees and carrying out inspections at either remote locations or the importers’ and exporters’ places of business.  The report also proposes GPS positioning to track vehicles, as was first tested at Sweden-Norway in 2003-2005.

They look at case studies such as Sweden-Norway, where Norway complies with EU regulations for most exports and imports.  Norway has additional controls for agriculture and fisheries. There exists a zone 15km either side of the land frontier where customs officials can operate on behalf of the other country (almost certainly impossible in an NI context, much as it would make perfect sense to have a single customs post in each direction), and an insistence that all declared goods must pass through a customs location.  Declarations must be submitted not less than one hour before the shipment is due to reach the border, and most traffic is cleared within 3-9 minutes.  Norway has introduced ANPR (the totem of the DUP) to monitor unmanned crossings.

The US-Canada border is a second case study.  15 minutes clearance time for trusted traders.

I have deliberately omitted deferred duty from these considerations.  It’s pretty much irrelevant whether customs officials collect import duties at the time of entry or they are invoiced for later payment.

What is perfectly relevant is that smart borders are going to cause considerable inconvenience to traders either side of the border by the time that trusted trader status has been secured.  The report is contradictory on manned crossings, suggesting both that drivers will have to present at a customs location to be risk assessed (or permitted to continue if issued an electronic pass) and that mobile inspections would be adequate.

There are things, such as deferred duty, and mutual recognition of declarations to avoid double handling (if UK inspect a shipment at Newry, why should Ireland need to re-inspect at Dundalk) which are simply sensible.  ANPR will be expensive, but will prove to be a useful weapon in the fight against all sorts of crime (assuming, that is, that the cameras aren’t vandalised very very quickly!)  However, the idea that smart borders could be a replacement for border posts simply doesn’t stand up.

Inspections will need to be carried out.  Unless it suits one or other jurisdiction to have the inspections carried out elsewhere, which will involve confidence that smugglers won’t just drive past unless forced to pull in, they will be at the border.

Even if inspections are carried out elsewhere, the border will be hard, because it will be unlawful to move goods between jurisdictions without the explicit permission of the importing authorities.

Unless of course NI stays in the Customs Union.   This was a finesse by the EU, and most of us saw through it straight away – the only way to avoid a hard border (and as is quite clear, Smart Borders 2.0 only simplifies the import/export process to an extent rather than maintaining open borders) is to remain in a Customs Union with the EU, and since the Good Friday Agreement confirms the UK indivisible without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland on the one hand, and the DUP opposes a customs border in the Irish Sea, that means all of the UK remaining in a Customs Union with the EU as the only way to square the circle created by the December agreement.

That means no outside trade deals, not that most of us believed that we would obtain trade deals more advantageous to UK manufacturers than we already possess through the multitudes of trade deals the EU already possesses as a far bigger trading market than the UK.

What it does mean is something essential to maintaining the United Kingdom’s manufacturing base.  Tariff-free access to its largest market.  Continued competitiveness in its closest external market.  Protection against dumping by other countries who would otherwise be seeking trade deals to increase their access to the UK market with minimal impact on their own manufacturers (remember – the purpose of every trade deal ever reached is to increase exports with a minimal impact on imports).  Access for British consumers to the goods they demand that are only manufactured in the EU without enduring inflated prices.

There is a great deal more work to do against the entitlement culture that insists that the United Kingdom by its very name is entitled to status that no other country has, that insists that we are entitled to free trade in goods and services without the free movement of people that the members of EFTA are obliged to accept (EDIT: Liechtenstein only securing an (officially temporary) exemption by virtue of its population of 37000).

But for now, this puts to rest the notion that technology can make a hard border soft.  Something extremely relevant to GB producers and manufacturers exporting across the English Channel and North Sea to continental Europe.

The challenge is to ensure that after Brexit, our manufacturers, producers and service providers find themselves no less able to work across the world – including in the UK itself, bearing in mind that third countries want trade deals to take market share from British producers and manufacturers by undercutting – on no less favourable terms than they currently can.  Until Single Market and Customs Union access is settled, this is a great deal less than certain.

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